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Friday, October 15, 2010

The day they turned the Charter of Rights into toilet paper

Well, I guess it's official now. Out of bathroom tissue? Just make a few photocopies of The Charter. The highest law of the land carries about as much weight as a couple of rolls. Single-ply scratchy.

By now, everyone's aware of the latest shameful episode in the Alex Hundert saga; ridiculously onerous bail conditions which can't possibly hold up when submitted to even the most elementary constitutional challenge, obviously designed to set him up for further arrests and harassment. Excuse me? No attending meetings? No talking to your friends? No expressing political opinions? (I'd suggest that Justice of the Peace Inderpaul Chandhoke might want to reacquaint himself with the Charter of Rights, but given what people have been using it for, perhaps we can't blame him for not wanting to review it too closely.)

And of course, the coercion to which Alex was subjected at the Metro East detention centre: no phone call, no lawyer, sign these conditions or you'll be kept in solitary confinement till God knows when.

So not only have we reduced the Charter to something to be used for distasteful personal hygiene – we've reduced ourselves to the stereotypical banana republic.

Smarter and better observers than I have gone through this already. It's hard to single out any one post in particular, but Travis Fast has nailed it here:

From the time of initial arrest the idea is not to get a criminal conviction but to use the administration of justice to systematically harass political activists depriving them of their liberty, time and money (on defence lawyers). What the police, Crowns and Courts are doing is abusing the the justice system in order to police political dissent.

It used to be that when Toronto cops misbehaved, Julian Fantino could be counted on to spin it as isolated and confined, or just the work of a few bad apples. Anyone who believes that now, I've got some land to sell you. This is obviously part of a coordinated and systemic effort by the cops and the Crown to criminalize dissent and intimidate other citizens.

But again, I'm not really pointing out anything new here. What I would suggest, though, is that it's all part of a nauseatingly established pattern evident from both police and prosecutors. They engage in this repulsive authoritarian bullshit, abusing us and our fellow citizens, for the same reason that dogs lick their own genitals: Because They Can.

And why is that? Well, there's a sorry history behind it, but what it boils down to is this: there is NO accountability for these bastards. There is absolutely no meaningful institutional way of holding these people responsible for the abuses they visit upon us. That's why I keep going on (and yes, I know, I do go on ... ) about the futility of expecting an institutional response.

The reasons for this are complicated, but they can be approached from two broad perspectives: the police and the courts. Some of my fellow bloggers have dealt with the courts already (plenty of links to get you started, I hope), so let's focus on the police.

On paper, police are subject to civilian oversight. In practice, the Toronto Police Association has a long history of doing everything possible to neuter that, and it has been abetted in that by a tame and ineffectual Police Services Board. Board members have varied from “cops are tops” cheerleading to sporadic attempts to assert some measure of control, but as a corporate entity, the Board has never, in living memory, demonstrated anything close to genuine effectiveness.

Perhaps the best illustration of that is in the Toronto Police Association's continuing refusal to refrain from political activity. Every few years the issue arises, and just as predictably the Board will harrumph and cluck its disapproval – and be blown off. No one has ever had the stones to actually put the question to a legal test. Culturally, historically and institutionally, the board has always been a paper tiger.

Just as predictable has been the police union's response: huffing and puffing about how Board members “don't understand police work.” The arrogant and transparently ridiculous argument that Association executives aren't police officers and thus aren't subject to the proscription on political activity. (Jesus H. Murphy. How many other people get to decide for themselves which laws they'll obey and which laws they'll ignore? How they'll interpret the laws? Or throw up bullshit excuses like “we're not police officers” for the purpose of this law?)

But it hasn't stopped there. Five years ago, we saw widespread defiance of an order from the chief of police during contract negotiations, marked by mass demonstrations of armed and uniformed cops to demand more and more of our money. Call me a stickler for paperwork if you must, but we provide police officers with those uniforms and weapons to be used in the performance of their duties. Marching on city hall in a display of armed force to press private contract demands is not part of those duties.

And given that there's never been any material or tangible consequence for things like this, is it any surprise that more and more cops feel the licence to go wilding – on us? Who's going to stop them? We've all heard dozens of revolting stories of egregious police abuses, sadism and brutality during the G20, and it's abundantly clear that nobody's going to face any criminal or disciplinary liability for any of it. The Blue Wall's up, folks, and it's going to stay up.

Established procedures for complaints? Independent inquiries? Talking to the Police Services Board? Uh-huh. Good luck with that.

(To come: more on the dysfunctional nature of police culture.)

Update: Speaking of cops, it seems that Officer Bubbles is inadvertently demonstrating the healing power of public scorn.

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